The Labour leadership hustings on BBC Newsnight http://tinyurl.com/39s8xr9 served to illustrate just how much trouble the Labour party is in. It’s a new start! The next generation! . . . . back to the drawing board.
From the start it felt desperate – opening statements showed how keen the candidates were to prove that they had learnt from Clegg – eye contact, eye contact, eye contact. But nobody had told them whether to make eye contact with the rather pointless studio audience or to make love to the camera.
(I’m just going to pause on that thought . . . ready? Let’s continue).
Sincerity filled the air as they set upon a mission to prove that there was no topic they were afraid to address – so hoary old chestnuts like immigration and ID cards took centre stage. And yet I think it is on issues such as ID cards and civil liberties that the Labour party is the most out of touch with the electorate. The City might have been happy to hear of quick Tory spending cuts (although not unanimously), but I got the impression that many people, fearing for local jobs and services, were won over by Labour’s more cautious timings. If true, it wasn’t the economy (stupid). And civil liberties is an area where the LibDems and, sticks in my throat to say it, Tories, do much better than Labour.
But what of the candidates? David Miliband has it all to lose, but looks the most statesmanlike of the quintet . . . in a kind of seen-it-before, Blair way. Is he a good choice for a party seeking to freshen up and reposition itself? Of course, he is also the most tainted by association with the past and I’m just not feeling that comprehensive education he likes to remind me of. I thought Ed Miliband looked desperate and in-your-face, trying to score some cheap and pretty unconvincing points on Iraq. Balls tried to appear ‘common man’ but just seemed blustering and strangely ill-prepared – the biggest loser on the night? Abbott did well but sometimes her piety can come across as a tad sanctimonious. She did, however, show that chivalry is not dead and patiently waited for the men to cede time to her – it worked – I guess we should feel pleased. Burnham also did well although he needs to move on from the ‘I’m a Northerner’ spiel and learn to assert himself more – he was crowded out at times.
The debate failed to engage in the way I’m sure the candidates hoped – and much of the blame has to lie with a hectoring Paxman who dominated proceedings in a thoroughly unhelpful way. Because this should be an exciting time for the Labour party. An opportunity to ask itself what it represents, its core values and the direction it wants to take for the next 10 years (let’s not assume they’ll be back in power at the first attempt). The candidates have spoken of the breadth of the field yet struggled to make their differences clear – surely this is what people want to know. Where do you stand on a variety of issues and why.
But this didn’t really happen. So my mind wandered. As I looked at them I was overcome by two thoughts. Firstly, the spectrum of red ties available on the British high street is much smaller than you might think. And, possibly more importantly, three of them don’t blink enough. It’s just weird and disconcerting. I like my politicians to blink. It’s one of the first ways I try to relate to them. Look at Obama – he portrays himself as a risk taker but is strictly establishment – he holds till the last possible moment . . . . it’s all in the anticipation . . . then blink – the tension is relieved. Clegg understands this, even Cameron sometimes gives it a go – but you’ve got to know when to stop.
I’m afraid the most likely candidates for Labour leader just haven’t got what it takes.